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In 1895, Mark Twain put his formula for how to tell a humorous story down on paper. The speaker should know how and when to deliver the punchline, learn to be apparently indifferent to his own humor, and exhibit mastery of the pause. Some years later, in his autobiography, Twain explained how he, in fact, had to learn how to follow his own advice. He was puzzled because the version of “His Grandfather’s Old Ram” story that was published in Roughing It “wouldn’t read aloud” (Autobiography, 177). In order to remedy this, Twain made changes to the story allowing for the same enjoyment and humor that a reader got from the Roughing It version to be shared by an audience who heard the story come from Twain’s mouth. In his autobiography, Twain “recites” the modified oral version, so that the reader “may compare it to the story from Roughing It, if he pleases, and note how different the spoken version is from the written and printed version” (Auto, 177). This essay examines the two versions paying close attention to their similarities, and puts under scrutiny their differences. It attempts to answer the question as to why one can be recited effectively before an audience, while the other one cannot -
a question that Twain said even he was “unable to clearly and definitely explain” (Auto, 181).
The respective versions differ pointedly in the way they begin the story. Echoing his tale of Jim Smiley and his Jumping Frog in that someone’s sets, Twain up to hear a story that goes nowhere, the Roughing It version focuses much more on Twain explaining how he came to hear the story, whereas the oral description tells why he is now choosing to share it with us. In the written account, Twain sets the stage somewhat literally by laying out the scene. All of the reporting questions are answered in the first paragraph. Who told the story? “Jim Blaine.” What is it about? “His grandfather’s old ram.” When did he tell it? “One evening . . . [when] he was tranquilly, serenely, symmetrically drunk.” Where was the storyteller? “He was sitting upon an empty powder keg.” And finally, why was the story being told to Twain? Because, his “curiosity was on the rack to hear [it]” (RI, 287).
In the introduction from the oral account, less attention is given to how Twain came to hear the story than to the lesson that one can attain from hearing it told now. “The idea of the tale,” Twain says, “is to exhibit certain bad effects of a good memory: the sort of memory which is too good, which remembers everything and forgets nothing” (Auto, 177). The historian (Twain does not call him Jim Blaine in the later version) is described as having this type of memory, and the audience is told that it can be seen in his oft started, but never completed story of his grandfather’s ram.
This characteristic of the historian’s memory, on which the entire joke rests, is not addressed at all in the set up for the written version. There, the historian is described in a great deal regarding his physical appearance: his round, red face, tumbled hair, and bare throat but nothing is said of his storytelling technique that will indicate what is to come. For all we know, we are going to hear a funny story about an old ram. This is a significant difference between the two versions because, in the oral account, the audience is essentially prepped for what is to come. They are let in on the joke before the punchline is spoken.
This clueing in of the audience is a key reason why the version in the Autobiography works well when recited, whereas the Roughing It version does not. A story is much more effective to an audience if they can play along with the speaker. In the written version, the reader is just as confused as Twain initially was by Blaine’s divergent rambling. We don’t really know what is going on, and are wondering when the ram is going to return to the story. But in the oral version, the audience has been told what is going to happen. They know that the ram will disappear from the focus, which only makes its happening all the more humorous.
Twain wastes no time shoving the ram out of the spotlight in the Roughing It version. In fact, one of the most notable differences between the written and the oral version is the sheer fact that in the former, the word “ram,” which is the apparent focal point of the story, only appears once. In Roughing It, the second sentence of Jim Blain’s account, “there never was a more bullier old ram than he was,” is the first, and more significantly the last, that the reader hears of the ram (RI, 288). In direct contrast to this, the oral version uses the word “ram” seven times and is referenced in the pronoun forms “he” or “him” on ten additional instances.
The audience knows, because of Twain’s introduction, that the story of the ram is eventually going to become the story of everything. But because of this knowledge, the fact that the ram sticks around in the spoken version merely acts to build suspense for his imminent departure. Twain knowingly plays with this when he has the historian make his first diversion in which he tries to determine the true identity of Smith, only to return to the ram moments later. The audience, in a sense, begins to root for the historian here as if their inner monologues are pleading, “Come on buddy, you’re back on track. Don’t loose it now.” But of course he does, and by the time he makes his second diversion to Smith, we know that he’s not coming back. The ram is gone for good. It is this teasing suspense that Twain builds in the spoken version, which makes it more fitting for a recital.
Twain also makes several changes in the language of the piece which contribute to the Autobiography version reading aloud with greater effect. The segues, using the term loosely in this case, are much more fluid in the spoken version. This fluidity alleviates the choppy effect produced when the Roughing It version is read aloud. This can be seen by comparing the two accounts of the woman who lends her glass eye (Miss Jefferson in Roughing It and Mariar Whitaker in the Autobiography) beginning with her initial phasing in, to her eventual phasing out.
Oral Version (From Autobiography, 178)
Why look here, one of them married a Whitaker! I reckon that gives you an idea of the kind of society the Sacramento Smiths could sociate around in; there ain’t no better blood than that Whitaker blood; I reckon anybody’ll tell you that. Look at Mariar Whitaker there was a girl for you! Little? Why yes, she was little, but what of that? Look at the heart of her had a heart like a bullock – just as good as the day is long; if she had a thing and you wanted it, you could have it have it and welcome; why Mariar Whitaker couldn’t have a thing, and another person need it and not get it get it and welcome. She had a glass eye, and she used to lend it to Flora Ann Baxter that hadn’t any.
Written Version (From Roughing It, 288)
Old deacon Furgeson up and scooted him through the window and he lit on old Miss Jefferson’s head, poor old filly. She was a good soul had a glass eye and used to lend it to old Miss Wagner, that hadn’t any.
It is evident that much more time is spent making the focus shift in the oral version than in the written one. Mariar Whitaker’s good heart is described in detail. Miss Jefferson’s – not at all. In the written version, Miss Jefferson is just a dot between two points, while in the spoken account, Whitaker is a character in the story. She has a part to play. This shift, from segue pawn to the vital role, is characteristic of almost all of the paralleled character accounts in the two versions.
In the oral version, the segues from person to person, while still retaining their ridiculous flightiness, flow with greater ease. This increase in fluidity transforms the mood of the audience from frustration at the ever-shifting storytelling technique of Jim Blaine, to entertainment by the historian whose “memory defeated his every attempt to march a straight horse” (Auto, 177). It is largely due to this change that the Autobiography version plays better to an audience when reading aloud.
Much of the reason that this oral version is performed more effectively than the story in Roughing It lies in the fact that the language of the former places more emphasis on showing than telling. In Roughing It, for example, Twain has to tell the reader how other people responded to the grotesqueness of Miss Wagner’s rotating glass eye in order to make his point. “Grown people didn’t mind it, but it almost always made the children cry, it was so sort of scary” (RI, 288). In this version, we read how others reacted to the event, and from that, we form our opinion. Compare this to the oral version. “As soon as she’d get excited that hand-made eye would give a whirl and then go on a-whirlin’ and a-whirlin’ faster and faster, and a-flashin’ first blue then yaller and then blue and then yaller, and when it got to whizzing and flashing like that, the oldest man in the world couldn’t keep up with the expression on that side of her face” (Auto, 179). Here, the account is so visual in its description that we no longer just hear about what happens we see it. We become the scared child who has to turn away.
The oral version of the glass eye account is a prime example of how the language of the piece lends it to a spoken performance. The onomatopoetic nature of the words
“Whizzing” and “a-whirlin,” coupled with the extensive use of alliteration, makes this version quite fitting for spoken discourse. Twain also uses polysyndeton in this sentence to give it more of a tendency to be recited than read. The excessive use of “and” causes the speaker to get “worked up” and excited as he recites this line, making its oral performance even more entertaining. This is evidence of the importance Twain emphasized in his later essay How to Tell a Story, on the manner of telling being more important than the matter itself.
The way in which Twain told the story then, is an obvious explanation as to why the Autobiography version read well aloud while the Roughing It version didn’t. Twain talks about the many “changes on the platform” that the story made over time, the modern comedic equivalent to “working the crowd” (Auto, 177). Many of these changes in delivery can be seen. There are more, punchlines, or nubs as Twain calls them, in the spoken version, that one can anticipate would generate a laugh from the audience. For example, commenting that the glass eye was too small for Flora, Twain, in one of his indifferent asides that he outlines in How to Tell a Story, says “it [the glass eye] was a number seven, and she was excavated for a fourteen” (Auto, 178). One can almost hear the rim shot after this one. Punchlines such as these help to give timing to the piece, which in turn helps this version “play well” before an audience.
The changes in comedic content were not the only changes made from the platform. Several of the scenes in the later version lead the speaker almost to act out what he is saying. One can imagine Twain rolling his eye around, “faster and faster” when telling the glass eye account from above. On several occasions, even, Twain practically gives stage directions. The sentence “Smith was standing’ there no, not just there, a little further away,” calls for the speaker to point to where Smith was or wasn’t standing, further taking on the role of the easily derailed historian (Auto, 178). Twain also puts in cues for when the historian is supposed to be musing. This incorporation of his belief in the power of the pause, something he emphasizes strongly in How to Tell a Story, helps even more to make the Autobiography version tailored to spoken performance.
Twain made it clear after comparing the two versions of the ram story that even he could not clearly identify the discrepancies that allowed the one to be recited and the other merely read. Yet it is obvious upon a close examination of the two that the answers can be found. Twain’s later version, modified as a result of “audience testing,” used language much more apt to be taken as humorous in it spoken as opposed to its written form. His writing also becomes more fluid, paying greater attention to the ease with which the diversions flow. Further, he lets the audience in on the joke from the very beginning, so that instead of being an awkward, choppy story that Twain is simply retelling, it becomes a comical recounting of a man whose brilliant memory was his own demise, told not by Mark Twain, but by the persona of the historian himself.
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